Monday, January 3, 2022

Darwin's Abominable Mystery

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Biological Diversity, Nature of Science, History of Science, Nature

Ed Hessler 

In a letter to his closest friend and confidant, botanist and explorer, Joseph Hooker, Charles Darwin wrote about something that had  puzzled him. "The rapid development as far as we can judge of all the higher plants within recent geologic time is an abominable idea." 

William Friedmann wrote a paper in 2009 published in the American Journal of Botany, about the question. What Darwin asked and what he didn't." 

Friedmann noted that "Darwin's abominable mystery is about his abhorrence that evolution could be both rapid and potentially even saltational. Throughout the last years of his life, it just so happens that flowering plants, among all groups of organisms, presented Darwin with the most extreme exception to his strongly held notion natura non facit saltum, nature does not make a leap." Darwin was a gradualist.

 Friedman's paper may be read in full and you are urged to take a look for both pictures and copies of Darwin's letters to Hooker which Friedman comments on but if nothing else read the abstract at the beginning.. Friedman's analysis is comprehensive.

Subsequent investigators thought Darwin had asked a more focused question on the origin of flowering plants per se but about evolution by leaps...(and)  could be used to support a creationist agenda."

So Darwin's question has taken two forms and you might wonder whether the more narrowly focused question--the origin of seed-bearing plants--has been resolved. The AAAS journal Science has a video (June 2020) on this question (3m 30s). In Friedman's paper he observed that "A Google search of the internet for 'abominable mystery' and 'Darwin' will yield hundreds (if not thousands) of results, often in science headlines referring to the mystery as “solved.” 

As usual with a video I recommend take a look at the responses as well.

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